Products of our past

David Christy

In my lifetime, there have been a few notable murder trials that generated public interest and newspaper headlines.

The murder trial of O.J. Simpson comes first to mind, home-grown terrorist Timothy McVeigh, the Menendez brothers and, of course, the murder trial of Robert Blake.

Two were acquitted, one was executed and the brothers got life in prison.

All notorious crimes, all different in nature, all with their own plots and subplots.

But looking back at history, and particularly the American West, where justice sometimes was swift and not always conducted before a judge or in a courtroom, the tale of Tom Horn stands out as being a singular and always murky murder trial that is controversial to this day — as were all the preceding trials I enumerated.

Tom Horn was born in Memphis, Mo., in 1860, as the Civil War was about to spill out onto the American landscape.

Being born in a border state that was torn between free and slave and seeing bloody clashes for years preceding the war on its border with Kansas, perhaps Horn was destined to be the killer and controversial figure history has recorded.

There are any number of books and accounts of the life and times of Tom Horn, but I found information on history.com to fill in some blanks for us.

Tom showed an aptitude for hunting and firearms marksmanship at an early age, and moved to the West in the mid-1870s, a decade after all the killing had ended in the Civil War.

He served in many capacities in earning a living, from cowboy and miner to U.S. Army scout, served as a sheriff’s deputy, a packer for the famed Rough Riders in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, with his claim to fame — or infamy — a notorious hired gun.

Now Hollywood and TV have portrayed the hired killer in many ways over the years, but Tom was the real McCoy.

He worked for the famed Pinkerton Detective Agency, hired to track and apprehend — most times violently — outlaws in the Old West who stole from banks and railroads.

They had the power and the money to pay for private law enforcement, which was sometimes the best system in the Old West to get justice.

After four years as a Pinkerton, Tom reportedly grew bored, and in 1894 — just a year after the Great Land Run of 1893 opened Enid and this area to settlement — he signed on as a hired killer with the private Wyoming Cattlemen’s Association.

The cattle barons of Wyoming had been using vigilante justice in the famous Johnson County War against rustlers, but also against legitimate Americans who settled small farms and raised sheep.

The cattle interests wanted to keep their monopoly on that lucrative industry, and were ruthless and many times worked outside of the prevailing law at the time.

The Johnson County War gave cattle interests a lot of bad press, so they shifted to stealth and shoot-‘em-in-the-back bushwhacking as a means of keeping their cattle industry a monopoly.

Tom Horn was hired to employ his gun-handling skills by ambushing and murdering anyone the cattle barons thought of as a troublemaker.

Tom was noted for killing from up to 200 yards away, and also having the reputation that those he killed — reportedly at least 17 men — never knew what hit them.

However, in 1901, Tom allegedly murdered 14-year-old Willie Nickel, the son of a Southern Wyoming sheep rancher, sheep farmers being considered the arch enemy of the cattle industry.

Historians have long debated and questioned in fact whether Tom really killed the boy, since he was convicted of the murder on evidence that would never see the light of day in a modern courtroom — his own drunken confession made to noted lawman Joe LeFors.

Credible witnesses who testified Tom could not have been the killer were ignored by the jury.

However, Tom had become a very shady figure with a substantial reputation, and brought more bad press and scrutiny to the cattle barons who hired him.

In the end, Tom probably was convicted of murdering Willie Nickel because of his other numerous “kills,” most of which certainly were vigilante in nature and well outside the law — even the sometimes shaky justice system that prevailed in Wyoming and other western states at the turn of the century.

Tom went to the gallows unrepentant, defiant to the end.

A few historians have made the case that Tom probably murdered the boy by accident, having mistaken Willie for his sheep rancher father.

The other argument was more likely Tom was convicted for a crime he may not have committed by Wyoming citizens bent on taking revenge on an infamous hired killer.

History likely will never know.

Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Visit his column blog at www.tinyurl.com/Column-Blog

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